While the UMass football team has taken its lumps on the field, its agressive recruiting strategy is starting to pay dividends.
The Minutemen have reportedly received 13 verbal commitments from 2013 recruits and are already going head-to-head with schools from the Mid-American Conference and BCS conferences along the Atlantic Coast. UMass head coach Charley Molnar maintains that his staff is sticking to the recruiting format he trumpeted during his first few weeks on campus: Attack the Northeast first and then head South.
“We really haven’t changed our strategy at all since we got here,” Molnar said. “We believe there’s enough players in New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to give us a solid base for our program. The heart of our football team is going to be from those areas.”
As it stands, the Minutemen have verbal commitments via athletes from New Jersey (5), Massachusetts (2), Connecticut (2), New York (1), Rhode Island (1), Pennsylvania (1) and Florida (1).
Part of the challenge of taking over a new program is the implementation of new strategies. On the field, that can mean switching an offense from a pro style to a spread. Off the field, it means figuring out what kind of kids a program wants and how to sell itself to those athletes.
No JUCO Players
When Molnar’s first recruiting class was announced, zero junior college players were on the list. Later on the Minutemen brought in Colter Johnson to fill in a need a punter. He is the only 2012 athlete to come to UMass from a two-year school.
Many programs scour the junior college ranks to add immediate experience to their teams. Charlie Weiss grabbed junior college kids from across the country to add depth to a downtrodden Kansas program. Meanwhile, a little closer to home, the University of Indiana added linebackers and its current starting quarterback from the JUCO ranks.
The Minutemen entered its first year as a FBS program with similar – if not more dire – depth chart issues. However, Molnar refused to go out and grab kids with a few years of junior college ball under their belts.
“We dont even have a coach assigned to any junior colleges. That’s not part of my vision for the football team as we move forward,” Molnar said. ”We want to have guys that are indoctrinated into the way we do business around here, where we have them for four or five years, and we can teach them the UMass way to play football. I think having the guys for two years is not enough time to have them understand the things we need them to do.
“A lot of times, guys who go to junior colleges usually have some sort of deficiency – whether it be academic or social. I don’t want to bring many guys like that into our program if I can avoid it.”
Molnar added that taking high school kids adds to the stability of the program, and he can have a better idea as to whether they have the “prerequisite academic success and social background.”
Graduate Student Transfers: ‘Exactly What I’m Looking For’
Molnar brought in three graduate student transfers via an NCAA rule that allows athletes to transfer, without penalty, and play for an additional year if they get their undergraduate degree and then pursue an advanced degree at a different school.
Mike Cox (Michigan), Deion Walker (Notre Dame) and Hafis Williams (Notre Dame) came to UMass this way and have been top contributors for the Minutemen at their respective positions.
Some UMass fans will read Molnar’s thoughts on JUCO players and question why he had no problem grabbing three graduate student transfers. For Molnar, taking graduate students fits right in line with his philosophy.
“When you talk about those young men, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. They’ve already got a degree, so they’ve already managed to get the job done in the classroom,” he said. ”The three young men that we brought in graduated from prestigious academic universities, so I know that they can do a good job at school anywhere. Socially, all of them passed with flying colors. They are the kind of guys we want around here. Lastly, they all have something to prove. They all want to go out and show people that they aren’t only good students, but they are also good football players.”
He added that BCS-level graduate student transfers bring an added bonus: They can teach younger kids how to play the college game.
“They have seen a lot of things and prepared as high-level BCS players, and they can use those experiences to help our younger guys who haven’t had to prepare for the level of competition that we play,” Molnar said.
Scholarship Situation/Redshirting Players
Moving from FCS to FBS means adding more scholarships, but the ebbs and flows of college football make getting to the magic number (85) difficult.
UMass had a little more than 65 scholarship players last year, from that number it lost athletes to graduation and attrition. Meanwhile, the NCAA allows FBS programs to give a maximum of 25 scholarships each year. No matter how you fudge the numbers, the Minutemen were unlikely to have a full allotment of 85 scholarship athletes.
Molnar said UMass was going to be “at about 81 scholarships this year.” While that number doesn’t seem terribly low, the Minutemen have been working with a number of athletes that were recruited to play FCS football, so depth has been an issue.
As such, Molnar has used a large portion of his 2012 class to either start or fill in this season. Part of his recruiting pitch was telling these athletes that UMass was a place where they could play – now.
“We recruited every one of these freshmen to come in and play. We never talked to them about redshirts,” Molnar said. “In fact, I told them if they wanted to go somewhere and redshirt, the University of Massachusetts might not be for them. We have lots of depth issues, and we needed guys that are physically and mentally ready to play.”
This pitch is still in full effect for the 2013 class. As it stands, the Minutemen have six verbal commitments from athletes that could potentially play offensive line at the college level. Molnar indicated that UMass is targeting all positions, but the offensive linemen may have jumped first after taking a look at the depth chart.
“Offensive line is definitely an area that needs to be addressed. We need more numbers in that area, and I think some of these guys not only loved UMass but they loved the opportunity they saw on our offensive line to get to play earlier in their career,” he said.
So What’s the Sales Pitch?
UMass is selling its football team to alumni via television and radio spots, and the always-present MBTA ads. But how does a new FBS program sell itself to a high school recruit that may know little to nothing about UMass?
“We sell UMass on a lot of different fronts. There are some core things we talk about with every recruit. We talk about the program, the academics and academic support, the value of a University of Massachusetts degree, the geography and what it’s like in the Amherst area,” he said. “We talk about our vision for the program and the future of facilities. Playing at Gillette is a key piece of the puzzle. It helps with our recruiting.”
Several recruits have shown a great deal of excitement about playing at Gillette. For example, Shane Huber, a three-star New Jersey linebacker who verbally committed to UMass, posted a picture of himself in front of the NFL stadium wearing UMass gear a few months back.
Molnar indicated that part of the process is building the UMass brand. He said that the brand was not as widely known as he would have wanted when he arrived, but that it’s his job to make it bigger than it is.
He said it’s a little different from walking into a living room wearing a Notre Dame jacket.
“It’s a little bit different because this is the first time I walk into the living room as the head coach,” he said. “No matter what logo you have on your shirt, you have to believe in what you’re telling these young men. Anything I tell these young men about the University of Massachusetts, I believe wholeheartedly. This is a great place to go to school, a great place to live and a great place to play college football.”